Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, a contact hitter with excellent on-base skills, has been on the Cubs’ radar since announcing that he wanted to test the MLB waters in free agency. In addition to addressing their needs in center and at the top of the lineup, Akiyama was also expected to fit within a limited budget that may have the Cubs shying away from what figures to be a fairly reasonable deal for Nicholas Castellanos.
According to Bruce Levine of 670 The Score, Akiyama is “seeking a three-year deal in the vicinity of $15 million” and the Cubs are indeed one of four or five teams interested. That figure is a year and $9 million more than what was initially projected by MLB Trade Rumors, but that same publication also said Akiyama was the free agent most likely to give his new team an everyday center fielder. Even with a few warts, $5 million AAV looks like a bargain.
There are understandable concerns that a broken foot suffered at the end of October could further hamper the athleticism Akiyama is already losing to age. He’s hardly an old man, but his defense may already be deteriorating and you don’t necessarily think of 32-year-olds as being at the peak of their professional careers. Then there’s the adjustment to MLB pitching and ballparks, not to mention life in America.
All that said, Akiyama hasn’t missed a game in five years and has averaged a .399 OBP over that span. Even accounting for age- and transition-based regression, just being able to put bat to ball while playing nearly every day is something the Cubs could use. It wasn’t star power they were missing last season, after all, it was consistent production from center and at the top of the lineup.
The Cubs also need to improve at the fringes of the roster in order to bolster the production of their core players. Not that a starting outfielder is a fringe player, but Akiyama wouldn’t be expected to carry the load offensively. Rather, his role would be to get on base and be what Joe Maddon might have called a “force multiplier.”
In addition to what he puts up in the box score, having a reliable starter in center means Jason Heyward shifting back to right on a full-time basis. Castellanos was a much-needed breath of fresh air for two months, but having him in one corner with Kyle Schwarber in the other and Heyward between them is less than ideal over a longer period.
Even if Akiyama’s not capable of producing over the next two or three years at the same level he has over the last five, he would be an absolute steal at the price being suggested. That makes him a good fit for management and ownership alike, though a few other teams getting involved could make the Cubs sweat a little.